The quotation “A civilization is measured by how it treats its weakest members” or “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member” is often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. However, Gandhi never said or wrote those words. There is a related quote where Gandhi is speaking about cruelty to animals: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated. I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.” The source of the quote is supposedly a speech given by Gandhi in 1931; but according to quotation sleuth Ralph Keyes, the words cannot be found in that speech. Nevertheless, this quote is often cited by animal rights organizations and advocates.
It was American writer and novelist Pearl Buck (1892-1973), best known for her novel, The Good Earth (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1932), and recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature that wrote: “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” The daughter of a missionary, she spent a large part of her life in China. When she returned to America she became a passionate advocate for mixed-race adoption, minority groups, and women’s rights.
Another notable individual who spoke about “the weakest members” was Hubert Humphrey (1911-1978) who served as U.S. Vice President from 1965 to 1969. At the Hubert Humphrey Building dedication in Washington, D.C. on November 1, 1977, Humphrey spoke about the treatment of the weakest members of society as a reflection of its government: “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
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For further reading: The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When by Ralph Keyes, St. Martin’s Griffin (2006).